Five Artists Under 25: Making a Case for the City of Trees

More young artists are choosing to stay in Boise rather than heading to the big city



Being an artist has never been easy. Finding inspiration and a support system to help make your name and carve out a place in the art scene can be as challenging as getting a first solo show.

Traditionally, artists have flocked to arts Meccas like New York, Austin, Texas, Seattle or Portland, Ore., to find the creative atmosphere they crave. But increasingly, young artists are choosing to forgo the big city for a chance to build something for themselves in smaller communities like Boise.

Whether it is current economic challenges or a desire to stay close to home that's behind the decision to stay put, Boise's city and business leaders are quick to encourage the creative class to settle down, recognizing that a vibrant artistic community can draw more than a pretty picture.

"When companies come here and ask about a community, they're not just asking, 'what are the electric rates and what are the tax rates,'" said Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce President Bill Connors. "It's the entire community. And communities with lively arts, with rich arts organizations, tend to win out over those that don't have that. ... We have a vibrant arts community as part of our pitch."

Boise has had an impressive arts scene for its size for decades. Well-established arts organizations like Boise Art Museum, Boise Philharmonic, Opera Idaho, Ballet Idaho, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Boise Contemporary Theater exist alongside budding organizations like Visual Arts Collective, Alley Repertory Theater, Black Hunger Gallery and Treefort Music Fest.

But developing that richness depends on keeping creative people living in the community, especially those at the beginning of their careers.

"Young people have the energy and enthusiasm and they've got a voice," said Terri Schorzman, director of the Boise City Department of Arts and History. "They still have a great vision of the world and the things that are available out there for them to do."

The department hosts workshops to help artists learn skills that will help create their career--like building a business, marketing themselves and even finding health insurance.

"It's important to keep these young folks because if they're willing to stay and be here, they're going to continue being contributing members of Boise and, as a result, make the economy even more vibrant and creative," said Schorzman

The Department of Arts and History also posts calls to artists, awards grants and tries to cater to the needs of the younger demographic.

"We really do want to look toward the grassroots and try to help get funding to those under 25 where possible," Schorzman said. "Or to find those opportunities where they can engage."

These and similar efforts seem to be producing incremental gains. Many of the young artists Boise Weekly interviewed waxed on about the overwhelming support and comfort they found in Boise's creative community and the population at large. For others, living in a place like Boise has made artistic pursuits more of a challenge.

"I'm hearing from a lot of folks who are in their late 20s and early 30s that they felt that they needed a more vibrant artistic culture to do the work they needed to do," said Schorzman. "But then I see, on the other side, folks that have come back or that are settling in and doing some really creative, interesting things and finding a neat way to do that and to really connect."

Richard Young, chair of the Boise State University Art Department, has observed trends among graduating students, particularly who's staying and who's heading out of town. While he couldn't say for sure whether more artists are choosing to stay, he has noticed a more welcoming arts scene burgeoning.

"A lot of the different arts organizations--whether they're visual arts organizations or whatever--are providing more opportunities for artists to stay here and continue their practice," he said.

Young said several of the recent graduates who opted to stay in Boise have started independent ventures, adding that much of the driving force behind this entrepreneurial spirit has been the slow economic recovery.

Many artists have found success as freelancers. Retroscope Media and Credenda Studios are flourishing businesses both begun by Boise State graduates.

Not expecting to find a design job in Boise, Beau Greener had planed to move to Seattle after graduating from Boise State in 2011. When he was offered a position at Carew Co. in Boise, he decided to stay and, along with a friend, started Credenda Studios, a screen-printing business specializing in concert posters.

Zach Voss, also a 2011 Boise State graduate, saw that staying in Boise might provide a unique opportunity and started Retroscope Media shortly before leaving school. The film production company celebrated its first year of operation this fall.

"I don't want to leave to compete with the masses that are also hoping to make it or break through," said Voss. "I feel like I can, with comfort, figure out exactly what I want to do here."

The security of living in a smaller community creates a confidence-building, big-fish-in-a-small-pond dynamic that allows artists to experiment more freely with their work. According to Schorzman, the opportunity to do this while living in a financially manageable area like Boise makes engaging in such pursuits even easier. Access to affordable space and cheaper materials is just the beginning.

"[The economy] has always impacted me as an artist," said Monique Betty, a dancer with Ballet Idaho. "There are a lot of dancers who have had the opportunity to train in these elite programs that cost a lot of money and I never had that. Finances always had something to do with it."

Financial concerns are not always as important as lifestyle for some artists who choose to stay in Idaho.

"I'm a Northwest girl," said Betty, a Pocatello native. "Even if I had the opportunity to go back East or something, I don't necessarily know that I would. The quality of life here is just great. And the people--I think that's the thing--it just makes me happy."

Financial considerations had little to no effect on Greener's decision to stay in Boise.

"[It was] the idea of being a part of something that has such good potential," Greener said. "I feel like Boise gets overlooked. When people stop and actually notice Boise, what's coming out of Boise and Idaho, they're pretty surprised. It seems like everything is growing. It's just taking off so quickly, it's starting to get more national recognition and people are starting to notice it more. We're not a bunch of desert hillbillies."

Connors feels that molding Boise's image so that it is seen as young, hip and artistic will an important draw for new residents.

"Some cities have done a great job branding themselves where young artists would want to be," Connors said. "Take Austin: Music City, USA. Young artists, young musicians hang in Austin because they've branded themselves that way."

Any such branding would have to be carefully thought out considering that many find Boise's lack of a specific artistic reputation to be among its most appealing attributes.

"We have a distinctive different kind of lifestyle and different kind of opportunities for [artists]," said Schorzman. "Boise is, for so many people, kind of a blank slate in the way that you can almost create what you want to create."

Boise's lack of artistic definition might just be what allows the visions of some artists to be realized in a more natural way, without an excess of influence from other artists, giving them room to grow.

"Every generation, every time period, has something different to offer. Depending on the artist or the artistic vision of what they need, how they're going to meet those needs of the community and themselves," said Schorzman.

Many of these young artists feel that Boise's creative culture is undergoing its own adolescence and is at a tipping point. The community could move in any direction and its members want to be here to help guide it.

: "There are significant things happening and it's interesting being part of defining what that movement is," Voss said. "I am aware of a shift and the decisions I make, especially in terms of staying or leaving, play directly into that ... to continually engage in that development and play a part in it is what intrigues me so much."


Evan Sesek

Age: 23

Discipline: Theater

Day Job: Floor staff at Edwards 9, freelance marketing

Hometown: Chicago

Years in Boise: 19

Evan Sesek is an actor and playwright. He graduated from Boise High School and went on to complete the theater program at Boise State University.

Right out of high school, he started interning at McCall's Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, a gathering put on by a New York-based theater company and attended by playwrights from all over the United States each summer. Sesek worked his way up at the conference, moving from intern to actor and eventually--after co-writing Voices from the Boise Hole--he participated in the conference as a playwright. Another of Sesek's plays, Champagne Breakfast--aptly centered on several post-collegiate individuals and their struggle to decide whether to stay in Boise or move away--received a stage reading in New York and was turned into a main stage production by Boise StateTheater Majors Association.

"It's so easy to live here," Sesek said of Boise. "You can get a job, pay rent and do nothing."

"It's a very comfortable place to live, which is a good thing I think, but maybe comfort is not always the best thing," he added. "Maybe comfort is the thing I should be seeking out in my 30s and 40s. Maybe being in your 20s is about being uncomfortable."

Sesek has appeared in numerous plays in the Boise area, including Boise Contemporary Theater's 2010 production of Norway, a play written by Idaho playwright Samuel D. Hunter. Sesek also appeared in BCT's 2012 season opener, Tigers Be Still, a dark comedy about the misadventures of a young art therapist.

Sesek does marketing work for Alley Repertory Theater on the side and in late summer 2012, the company put on another of Sesek's plays. Written along with Jason Haskins, Levi Middlebrooks: Back 2 Boyzee follows a fallen former boy band member and his attempted reentry into the music business as a Christian rock singer.

"I'm doing something here," said Sesek. "It does feel like there is this burgeoning something. ... You wanna be part of that. It's almost like you don't want to leave when things are getting good. You'll go somewhere and you'll work a couple of shitty jobs and you won't do any theater and they'll all be doing theater back here.

"In terms of whether it can stack up to Portland [Ore.], those places ... I think it's going to be different," said Sesek. "I think people focus on that a lot--are we going to be this city or that city--and I think we just need to be Boise. It's just different. It's different than all those other places."

Editors Note: The above text was changed from the print version to reflect the correct name of the play which was taken to New York for a reading. It was not written as part of the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Boise Weekly regrets the error.


Julia Green

Age: 24

Discipline: Illustration

Day Job: Graphic artist at Whole Foods Market

Hometown: Boise

Years in Boise: 24

Julia Green was born and raised in Boise and she has never left. Her work can be found on concert posters, in newspapers and magazines, on the chalkboard in front of Pie Hole and on the Internet.

Her characters span a wide range of themes, but they're also distinctive. She begins her drawings with traditional materials--good old pencil and ink--then she adds color and makes small adjustments with her computer. She has loved drawing since childhood but decided to pursue illustration as a career after seeing a concert poster by fellow Boise artist Ben Wilson.

"Boise is a great community of creative people, and it's a fun time when 90 percent of your friends are doing important things and making things," Green said. "I really love Boise because it is so damn beautiful here, the people are in a state of calm, it's cheap to live here, and it's easy to make your way to the top."

Green studied art at Boise State University, and after a few years of producing concert posters, her work started to gain recognition and she was solicited for gallery shows and other freelance work. She still does posters but has expanded to album art and T-shirt designs. Her illustrations also pop up in the pages of Boise Weekly and Pittsburgh-based Bicycle Times.

For Green, geographical isolation has become a near non-issue thanks to the Internet.

"I've been able to use my work in Boise as a way to build a portfolio and get artwork in other cities using connections I make on the Internet," she said.

In February 2013, Green will participate in a women's-only group show at G1988 in Melrose, Calif. The show is a collaboration with hellogiggles.com--the female-centric entertainment site started by Zooey Deschanel, Sophia Rossi and Molly McAleer.

Early this year, Green made plans to leave Boise for a bigger city. But as she was about to pack her belongings, she scored a job. And not just any job--the kind that actually pays her to do art. Venturing away from Boise someday isn't out of the question but for now, Green has found enough to keep her here.

"For the small amount of people in Boise, the percentage of really amazing people is high," Green said. "There are plenty of artists here who could easily make a living in other, larger cities, and it actually bums me out that some are too shy to try."


Zach Voss

Age: 23

Discipline: Film

Day Job: Director at Retroscope Media LLC

Hometown: Pocatello

Years in Boise: Five

Zach Voss moved to Boise in 2007 to attend Boise State University. While still sheltered safely inside the undergraduate cocoon, he realized the only way he could find a job making the kind of work that really interested him was to employ himself.

He started Retroscope Media, a creative media company specializing in video production. After graduating in late 2011, he was able to make Retroscope a full-time job and the LLC has been running successfully for more than a year.

"Fresh out of college starting your own business was much easier to do in Boise than it would have been in a bigger city," Voss said.

"There are hard costs, which are the same ... but other things are much more accommodating, like cheap rent whether it's in my housing or my office.

"Also, I think the ease of being able to ride my bike with my trailer to a location and film that way and not have to get on a highway and be in traffic for an hour. It's small enough to where I can navigate the scene and enjoy doing so. ... It's cool to be able to get someplace pedal-powered."

Voss cites his participation in the i48 festival as a turning point in his creative life, a point at which he became better known for his films. In 2010, Voss entered Object of Affection in the novice category and it won best film. The following year, Beard's Company was a competitor in the open category and won best film as well.

Not long after his 2011 success, Voss received a grant from the Idaho Film Office to create another short film. Mandrake Estate follows Brooks Lloydman, the groundskeeper of a prestigious golf course. The film wrapped production in late summer with plans for a screening later this year.

"I'm finding a lot of opportunity available to me without having to have an undesirable level of competition with anyone else," said Voss who has been able connect and collaborate with other Boise artists in a way he doesn't feel would be possible in a larger city.

"All those avenues that are just right there," he said. "A phone call away and I know that I would be greeted with a positive response and a willingness to participate."

Retroscope Media continues its momentum with a grant from the Boise City Arts and History Department, which will result in a documentary film detailing the life and work of local tricycle craftsman Gregory Allen.

"It's intriguing and I wanna ride that wave," Voss said of Boise's progress.

"I think that it's kind of a common idea to leave when you want to pursue something like that and jump into it in a place that might be considered a hub, but to stay here and represent this place I think is an honorable task and something I wish to continue."

Daniel Kerr and Jake Warnock - LAURIE PEARMAN

Daniel Kerr & Jake Warnock

Name: Daniel Kerr

Age: 24

Discipline: Music

Day Job: Server/chef at Bacon

Hometown: Pocatello

Years in Boise: Five

Name: Jake Warnock

Age: 23

Discipline: Music

Day Job: Barista at Crux

Hometown: Pocatello

Years in Boise: Five

Daniel Kerr and Jake Warnock are Atomic Mama, a band that plays "rock 'n' roll for the future." The two played in bands together during their youth and when they graduated high school, they went their separate ways, each seeking to break into the music scene of a bigger city. Kerr went to Portland, Ore., and Warnock moved to Phoenix.

A year into their respective adventures, the two were talking on the phone and decided to come back to Idaho.

"[We] realized that we hadn't met the kind of people we wanted to play music with," Kerr said.

"We wanted to rehearse and record and have a place to put all our stuff, so we just went out to Garden City and found a big warehouse for cheap," he said. "It's that kind of stuff that's hard to do in other places."

"I think people move to big cities with all these stars in their eyes, but it takes a real long time to figure it out if you don't have a foundation there," said Warnock. "We have a pretty solid foundation, we just needed to figure out the right kind of venue for it."

That venue was Boise.

"There's a lot of response to the creative things because the people are hungrier here than they are in a lot of other places," said Warnock. "There's not nearly so many jaded [people]--everyone's really cool in an innocent sense of cool instead of so fucking cool that nothing's really cool at all. You know, not cold. ... The people here are really supportive of what we do and that's a beautiful thing. It makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning."

Kerr and Warnock find Boise's isolation helpful in shaping creative pursuits, or rather, in not shaping them.

"It's kind of nice being able to separate yourself ... and feel like you're an Idaho boy just playing whatever comes to mind and comes to heart," said Kerr. "I'd like to keep that as long as we can before we really need to venture out."

"You get into these cliques in bigger places," Warnock added. "I think a lot of bands get sucked into having the exact same sound. ... We have so many influences and so much love for so many different types of music. We want to play all of it."

"We definitely don't want to shut any of it out," said Kerr. "We wanna be able to draw on whatever we wanna draw on."

"There's more of a sense of a creative freedom here," said Warnock. "The beautiful thing about music is that it takes you all over the world if you let it and cultivate it enough to let it. Boise has been a great home base. ... I think that anywhere we go in the entire world, if we ever move, we still would have a really huge part of Boise in our hearts."

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